Paul Pillar

The Kuwaiti Model

Much discussion about the authoritarian and undemocratic ways of the Middle East focuses on Egypt, which is not surprising given that country's size and historical centrality in the Arab world. Recent action in the streets has instead occurred in Tunisia, where escalating demonstrations have rocked the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The disturbances in Tunisia have received much less attention in the United States than among Arabs, although with some indication that neocon hope springs eternal for the kind of democratic domino effect that never materialized after the U.S.-forced regime change in Iraq. On Thursday the 74-year-old Ben Ali announced he would not seek to remain in office beyond the end of his current term in 2014. So maybe some real change is afoot, although it is probably just as likely that Ben Ali will use his remaining time to prepare the way for a chosen successor in a transition as undemocratic as his own taking over from the only other president Tunisia has ever known, Habib Bourguiba. (Friday afternoon update: with Ben Ali having fled the country, this last observation obviously overestimated even his short-term staying power.  Right now Tunisia appears to be on a path to change that, per my words below, is one of those "sudden and even violent ones that leave great uncertainty about what would emerge from the disorder.")    

While the action in the streets has been in Tunisia, more of the recent action in halls of government has been in Kuwait. That is yet another Middle Eastern country where most power is in the hands of a ruling elite—in this case the Sabah family, led by Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al-Sabah. Kuwait has a popularly elected National Assembly, which the emir dissolves from time to time when the assemblymen get too rowdy or uppity. But at least for the past decade, the dissolutions have been performed in accordance with the Kuwaiti constitution, with fresh elections—the most recent of which were in March 2009—promptly held. Political activity centered in the National Assembly has been vibrant, with the very rowdiness indicating that Kuwaitis, including ones in opposition to the government, believe that they are part of a political process that matters.

The principal focus of politics in the National Assembly the past couple of weeks has been a no-confidence motion against the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, who is a nephew of the emir. The issues underlying the motion involved accusations of police brutality. The opposition pushing the motion consisted of a coalition that, as described by the Kuwait Times, ranged from Salafist Islamists to liberals to tribals. The motion ultimately was defeated by a vote of 25 to 22, but the opposition considered it a victory of sorts to muster as many votes as it did. And in Middle Eastern terms, to mount that much, and that vigorous, of a challenge to a government associated with a ruling family—whether monarchical or ostensibly republican—is noteworthy. The most recent development is that the interior minister—Sheikh Jaber Khalid al-Sabah, another senior member of the ruling family—has offered his resignation in response to a public outcry over one particular case of an individual who died in police custody.

One can still find ample cynicism among Kuwaitis about the effectiveness of their country's political process. But given the prospects, or lack of them, for meaningful political change elsewhere in the region, the Kuwaiti model offers some attractions. A basic problem in most of the Middle East is rigid resistance by ruling elites to any loosening that seems aimed at taking down their power and privileges, and the related problem of a lack of paths for change other than sudden and even violent ones that leave great uncertainty about what would emerge from the disorder. Kuwait demonstrates a process that is meaningful enough to be worthwhile pursuing but not so threatening to current rulers that it is politically infeasible.

The vigorous debates in the Kuwaiti National Assembly let off a lot of steam. They have the immediate benefit of consuming energies that without that outlet probably would find more destructive and destabilizing channels. Over the longer term, the political process in Kuwait provides a framework for realignment of the relative powers of monarch and parliament. This process can be very gradual. Think of the evolution of the British monarchy from Henry VIII to Elizabeth II.

Greater popular sovereignty in Kuwait carries some of the same be-careful-what-you-wish-for cautions as apply elsewhere in the Middle East. In some respects the National Assembly, where the Islamists constitute the most influential bloc, has been more of an impediment to progress and reform than the ruling family has been. The Islamists opposed, for example, the election of women to the assembly, where the first female members took their seats after the election in 2009. But compared to what one sees in the rest of the region, what's happening in Kuwait still looks relatively attractive.